Unreserved spots

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- With fewer than two weeks remaining before the Orioles break camp and move their rebuilding project north, their final roster is far from set. Decisions loom in the lineup and on the bench, in the rotation and in the bullpen. The No. 1 starter is just as unclear as the 25th player.

A relatively quiet camp is expected to start humming after yesterday's lone off day on the exhibition schedule.

Orioles manager Dave Trembley is orchestrating competitions that will separate his in-house candidates. Luis Hernandez starts at shortstop one game, Brandon Fahey the next. Matt Albers and Brian Burres are sent to Fort Myers to pitch in minor league games on the same day that Garrett Olson starts for the Orioles.

"I'm trying to be fair to everyone," Trembley said.

Trembley keeps an open mind about his own players while team president Andy MacPhail keeps his eyes open for available talent on other teams. Scouts are out at other camps. Trade talks continue regarding second baseman Brian Roberts, with the Chicago Cubs believed to be the most aggressive pursuers. The Orioles remain interested in the Houston Astros' Mark Loretta, either as an eventual replacement for Roberts or a utility infielder.

"If we see what we think is a measurable upgrade over a position that makes sense for us both in the short term and the long term, that's something you look at," MacPhail said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be position-dependent. Like everybody else, if you can find an upgrade with your pitching that makes sense for you, that's certainly something clubs will be focused on this time of year."

Trades aren't the only avenue for improving a club, and executives throughout baseball will keep close watch on the waiver wire.

"I just read that the 26th is the last day you have to let a guy go or pay him for a full season," Trembley said. "That last week of spring training, there's going to be a flurry of transactions. That's why I've been saying the bullpen, fifth starter, utility guy and all that kind of stuff probably won't get named until the last week of spring training, simply because you never know what could happen with those waiver claims."

Of all the announcements pending, naming a closer appears the most obvious and could happen as early as today. The Orioles wanted George Sherrill in the trade with the Seattle Mariners for Erik Bedard because they envisioned him protecting leads in the ninth inning. He has four career saves, but the Orioles are prepared to hand him the ball and a new responsibility.

"There's nothing I've seen this spring that would lead me to believe he's anything other than the type of pitcher we thought we were getting when we acquired him," MacPhail said.

Usually a slow starter in spring training, Sherrill has allowed two runs in his first six innings, with no walks and six strikeouts.

"This is the best spring I've had, but it's only [six] innings deep," Sherrill said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it goes down to the last day. I played catch with [Dennis] Sarfate the other day, and he has a heavy ball. It could be any of us. I'm just happy to be in the mix. I could close or set up, because I think we have a pretty special 'pen."

That bullpen will have two long relievers if MacPhail and Trembley have their way. And the final composition is tied to the battle for the fifth starter's job.

Unless the Orioles bring back Hayden Penn, who was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk and sent to minor league camp last week, the finalists for the last rotation spot appear to be Albers and left-handers Burres and Olson. At least one of the losers could end up pitching in relief.

Albers, who has allowed two runs and six hits in five innings, is scheduled to start today against the Minnesota Twins, with Burres and perhaps Olson following him.

Burres has practically been assured a spot on the team based on Trembley's familiarity with him, but his role is undefined. He has also struggled in two starts, allowing three runs and nine hits in 4 2/3 innings. Olson has surrendered one run and three hits in seven innings, but he has walked six and must prove to Trembley that he can command his fastball better than he did in the majors last season.

A long reliever might have to be molded rather than chosen from the group of potential fifth starters. Trembley is trying to stretch out Rule 5 pick Randor Bierd.

Other spots on the roster that must be addressed include:

No. 1 starter: Trembley insists that Adam Loewen, Jeremy Guthrie, Steve Trachsel and Daniel Cabrera have an equal chance to replace Bedard. There's sentiment within the organization to give Trachsel the honor as the veteran of the group and relieve the younger pitchers of the added pressure.

Starting shortstop: It was supposed to be Hernandez's job to lose, and he might be doing it. Fahey has outplayed him in the field and at the plate. This is an area where the club could elect to go outside the organization - perhaps Ronny Cedeno if the Roberts trade occurs.

Last two bench spots: For now, Jay Payton is the fourth outfielder and Guillermo Quiroz appears to be the backup catcher with his .409 average and deft handling of pitchers. Jay Gibbons (.192) must serve a 15-day suspension, which opens a temporary spot if he isn't released or traded. Scott Moore, recovered from a lower abdominal strain, is hitting .556 and is superior defensively to Mike Costanzo, who's batting .324 and is tied for the team lead with two home runs, but also has struck out 10 times in 34 at-bats and would be making the jump from Double-A.

With Freddie Bynum no longer an option because of knee surgery, the Orioles still need a backup at the middle-infield positions. Fahey or Hernandez could assume that role.

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

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